For Writers: On the Discoverability of LGBT Books

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Today we have a special treat – a guest column from writer Andrew J. Peters on the marketing of LGBT fiction that’s not romance based:

Recently a reader shared with me he had been curious to read my books, but was slow to pick them up because he mainly reads gay fiction and wasn’t sure if my books were gay based on their blurbs and covers.

My books are quite gay, I think, though they take place in a fictional, ancient, “pre-gay” historical time. For example, my recent release Banished Sons of Poseidon is the story of a sixteen-year-old boy named Dam who is overcoming some scars from the past, having been ‘played’ by wiser, meaner boys. Though mainly it’s about Dam’s big adventure finding a way home for the survivors of Atlantis.

His cousin, a major sideline character, is partnered with another boy, and his best friend also ends up with a boyfriend. Dam himself finds a boyfriend along the way. So, lots of gayness there. Though the boyfriend relationships are subordinate to the adventure.

It was important to me that the cover art reflect the time period and setting and epic-ness of the story. Happily, my publisher agreed. For the back cover blurb, it didn’t feel right to mention sexuality. The blurb tells the reader a bit about Dam and what I hope is a catchy preview of his adventure. I included a line about Dam meeting a young man from a foreign race who is “eager for friendship,” thinking that might hint at a same-sex relationship. But I didn’t want to go there full-on because I worried the story would be misconstrued as romance. Now, on the other hand, I wonder if the lack of clues about the book being gay makes it harder for fans of gay fiction to discover it.

It’s hard for any diverse YA to be discovered by readers because of the relatively low output of diverse titles by publishers, and their relegation to niche markets, with less promotional dollars behind them, which is why I love and support #YesGayYA and #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

I’ve talked on conference panels and around the blogosphere about small press publishing as a strategy to increase diversity in literature. Some small presses specialize in diverse YA. Many have an affinity for “untold stories” versus “commercial” literature, which often means books in which the hero is outside of the dominant culture of maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, cis-genderism, attractiveness, the middle class, among other things. I like small presses a lot, and I’ve sold books to three of them.

The challenge for small presses is to maintain a profit margin in their niche markets, and they often lack the dollars and I’d say social capital to get titles noticed by the industry’s top media and tallest platforms like ALA’s Best Book lists and awards, and the most prestigious review sources like the New York Times Book Review.

For example, ALA’s most recent Rainbow List of Top GLBT Young Adult Fiction books, included eight books published by small presses out of twenty-nine of their picks. That may not sound too bad: a 28 percent share of the list. But small press books make up around half of the overall publishing market according to Nielsen data, and I would estimate an even larger share of the LGBT YA market. That would be a great research project for Malinda Lo at Diversity in YA. J

Only one of those eight small presses (Harmony Ink) is specifically aimed at LGBT YA, by the way. (And only six books on their list were not contemporaries; just saying).

Pardon that digression from my original story. What that reader made me think about was how even when diverse books are published and let’s say distributed and promoted well, it can still be hard for readers to find them. I think this is particularly challenging for books about invisible minorities like LGBTs and for books in which the main character is L or G or B or T but not involved in a romantic relationship or coming out. Many readers, publishers, and agents say they would love to see YA of all genres in which the main character “happens to be LGBT.” But how do you market them to fans of LGBT books?

The problem brings to mind the debate over how diverse books should be shelved in bookstores, an issue sadly becoming more and more moot as brick-and-mortar stores close shop. I’ve had lively debates with folks who bemoan the ghettoization of LGBT books via “Gay and Lesbian” sections, largely with authors who believe their work will benefit from being out on the main shelves where readers might buy a book that sounds interesting, even though they don’t typically read stories about LGBTs.

I have doubts about that approach for two reasons. First, taking the point of view of the reader who is looking for a book about LGBTs, and based on my own tendencies, readers don’t want to spend hours looking at the covers and blurbs of all the young adult books in a bookstore, trying to decipher if this one or that just might have an LGBT character.

Second, I’m not convinced that many readers take chances on books about characters they don’t immediately relate to. I don’t mean that in a judgey way. I just think it’s human nature. There are a humungous number of titles to choose from, and we only have so much time to read. So like that reader who reached out to me, most of us tend to read books that are familiar to us, that we can count on to entertain us based on past experience. The only way to determine that while browsing is if the book is in a bookstore section, or tagged by an online bookseller, with an identifier that rings bells for us. Book covers and back cover blurbs can also provide clues. And now I’m back again to the dilemma I started with.

I suppose the answer for those of us who write LGBT YA with characters who “happen to be” LGBT is to build one’s brand as an author so that readers know what they’ll be getting. I’m not going to change my cover art or write stories with stronger romantic content. I don’t mind romance, but those aren’t the stories that appeal to my creative brain. So it may take a little more work and definitely a little more time for LGBT fiction fans to discover my books. Meanwhile, I’ll keep talking up the need for diversity in YA, including and beyond LGBT stories.

Andrew J. Peters writes fantasy for readers of all ages. He is the author of the Werecat series, two books for young adults: The Seventh Pleaide and Banished Sons of Poseidon, and forthcoming The City of Seven Gods. Andrew grew up in Buffalo, New York, studied psychology at Cornell University and has spent most of his career as a social worker and an advocate for LGBT youth. He has been a contributing writer at The Good Men Project, GayYA, La Bloga, and YA Highway among other media. For more about Andrew and his books, visit: http://andrewjpeterswrites.com, or follow him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/andrewjpeterswrites) and Twitter (@ayjayp).

Andrew also prepared a few questions for us:

Is it harder for books about people who ‘happen to be LGBT’ to find a readership?
How have you marketed books in which the main character’s sexual identity is incidental? Differently from LGBT romance? The same? Broader to the sci-fi/fantasy mainstream?
For authors at small presses, what has been your experience getting titles noticed by top tier review sources and awards programs? Do you have any tips to share?

3 thoughts on “For Writers: On the Discoverability of LGBT Books

  1. I’m convinced there’s a huge market for stories about men who “happen to be gay”.

    That said, I’d like to make a comment about your distinction between stories where sexuality is “incidental” and gay fiction, which by definition addresses some aspect of being gay.

    I think you’re saying that the story doesn’t have to be focused on coming out or otherwise grappling with a character’s sexuality, and I agree. Those are coming out/struggle stories, or stories of outright oppression.

    On the other end of the spectrum, apparently, is where the character’s sexuality is “incidental”. I’ve never encountered one of those, so I’m taking you at your word. In every piece of dramatic fiction I’ve read, love and or family (which is a direct expression of sexuality in the heteronormative world) is mentioned, even if not romantically. The same is true in my world.

    My gay characters are gay. Their sexuality may not be a social issue for them, but it’s far from incidental to them or to their story. Sexuality is one of the highest forms of spirituality, in my experience of the world — same sex attraction is a profound expression of spirituality. I know not everyone shares that view, but that’s mine, FWIW.

    I don’t write YA, as I’m in a stage of life where it’s not significant to me. And I don’t write coming out stories any more. I’m far more interested in stories about gay men I can identify with — who are more interested in the kind of creative life possible to them because of who they are, men who already understand and celebrate their sexuality. I don’t usually write on-page sex, but it’s in the story, without a doubt.

    I try to market my stories as offering more mature characters, with different problems, hopes and dreams than those appearing in the 25 and under stories.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Lloyd, and I make a good point about language. I didn’t really mean incidental in the sense the gay aspect of the character is not explored or acknowledged in any way. I meant that any romance, sex, or coming out struggle is non-existent or at best incidental (a hero has a fling with another guy while infiltrating a corrupt corporation that could destroy the world!). I’m absolutely on the same page: a character’s gayness, or trans or bi or queer identity, IS important regardless of whether or not the story is about an internal struggle or finding love, etc.

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